Lag B’Omer and Vegetarianism: Making Every Day Count
This article was co-authored with Dan Brook.
Lag B’Omer is considered a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but even a minor holiday is still a holiday and therefore worth celebrating. A great way to celebrate Lag B’Omer is through vegetarianism, as Lag B’Omer is deeply connected to the Earth and its fruits.
Lag B’Omer represents the 33rd day of the counting of the omer, the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot, reminding us of the link between these two important holidays. While Passover celebrates our freedom from slavery, Shavuot celebrates our receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai — both events being relevant for each generation. During Passover, Jews would bring barley to the Temple in Jerusalem; on Shavuot, Jews would bring their first fruits. Between these two holidays, while counting the days, Jews traditionally brought an omer of grain to the Temple. The word lag represents 33 and an omer is a measurement. The goal is not only to count the omer but to make the omer count.
According to a midrash, there were fifty days between the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah-between liberation and law-because the Jewish people were not yet spiritually pure. On our modern journeys, in our efforts toward liberation, we can increase our purity by eating purer foods. We can purify our health and purify our planet, while purifying our spirit, with every meal.
Many people who switch to a vegetarian diet report feeling physically, emotionally, and spiritually better. Lag B’Omer presents a special opportunity to reflect on where we’ve come from as well as to look forward to where we might, and should, be going, as it is a time for self-awareness, self-growth, and community development.
We sincerely hope that Jews will enhance their celebrations of this ancient and beautiful holiday of Lag B’Omer by making it a time to strive even harder to live up to Judaism’s highest moral values and teachings. We certainly don’t need more “things” in our homes and we don’t necessarily need to make an agricultural pilgrimage; instead, we do need more meaning, purpose, and spirit in our lives. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this. One significant way is by moving towards vegetarianism. Promoting organic agriculture, recycling, renewable fuels, and conservation are some others ways.
By sharing grain with others, Lag B’Omer demonstrates the power of cooperation and community. In contrast, meat-eating demonstrates the opposite. Raising animals for consumption, besides being cruel to animals (and therefore violating the Torah prohibition of tsa’ar ba’alei chayim, causing unnecessary harm to animals), uses and wastes a tremendous amount of grain as well as water, land, soil, and fossil fuels (transgressing bal tashchit, the Torah injunction not to waste anything of value), while destroying communities (the opposite of tikkun olam, healing the world), degrading the environment (not the way to be shomrei adamah, partners in preserving our world), and damaging human health (going against pekuach nefesh, the need to protect our health and lives).
Judaism also stresses the importance of tzedakah, that we be kind, assist the poor and weak, and share our food with the hungry, yet approximately 3/4 of major U.S. crops – e.g., corn, wheat, soybeans, oats – is fed to the billions of animals raised for meat and destined for slaughter. Further, Judaism repeatedly suggests that we pursue peace and justice, and vegetarianism is one key step on that path.
While millions of people annually die from over-consumption, particularly consumption of fat and cholesterol, millions of people annually die from under-consumption, from starvation and hunger-related diseases. Indeed, it takes many pounds of grain, rich in fiber and other nutrients, to produce a single pound of cholesterol-laden meat. Although the world produces more than enough food to feed all its people, the inequality of wealth and power, along with the inefficiency of land use and food distribution, creates conditions that lead to scarcity, chronic hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. Lag B’Omer reminds us to enjoy the bounty of our crops – and lives – and to share what we have.
World hunger is neither necessary, automatic, nor inevitable. Vegetarianism creates conditions that are more fair and just, more efficient and sustainable, thereby potentially allowing more people to be fed, rather than using land, grain, water, labor, energy, and other resources to produce food to be fed to animals that are later killed and then fed to people. In addition to being better for one’s health and our environment, vegetarianism is better for food security and the alleviation of world hunger. Food security, in turn, may prevent the all-too-common instances of jealousy, covetousness, ethnic tensions, and then violence, war, and genocide. It is worth noting that the Hebrew root word for both bread, lechem, and war, milchama, is the same, implying that when bread is scarce war is more likely.
Traditionally, many Jews refrain from open celebration during the counting of the omer. However, Lag B’Omer is a day during this season on which marriages, haircuts, and other celebrations are allowed to begin again because miracles have occurred on Lag B’Omer. It was on Lag B’Omer, for example, that a plague that had killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students finally ended. Choosing vegetarianism champions life by saving lives everyday. Shortly after the plague, Rabbi Akiva chose five students to carry on his work, one of whom was the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Eleazar hid in a cave for thirteen years after Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was condemned to death by the Roman conquerors of Jerusalem for speaking out against them, following the murders of Rabbi Akiva and many others. While they lived in a cave, they were sustained by their studies of the Torah, a local stream, and a nearby carob tree for their food. These great sages demonstrated that a vegetarian diet, like the manna the Israelites received in the Sinai desert, is enough to sustain a person as well as a people.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught that our world and the unseen “higher” worlds are unified, as manifestations of the Divine Soul, and that the meaning of life is to reunify Creation with the source of Creation. He also affirmed that the “crown” of a good name, doing good deeds, is the most important thing, even more so than studying Torah, and is within the reach of everyone. He further asked that his day of passing be a day of celebration. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai died on Lag B’Omer.
The Omer is sometimes referred to as the Sefirah, The Counting. Sefirah also means illuminating. Literally for some and figuratively for all, it is important to count each day and to make each day count. Eating vegetarian may allow us to live longer and healthier lives, as many scientific studies have shown, while saving the lives of countless animals. Doing so illuminates our lives as well as theirs, allowing us to be a light unto others.
In addition to resource conservation and economic efficiency, a switch toward vegetarianism would greatly benefit the health of individuals, the condition of our environment, and would sharply reduce the suffering and death of billions of animals. Further, the social, psychological, and spiritual benefits should not be underestimated.
The founder of Chasidism. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), became known to the rest of the world on Lag B’Omer (he died 26 years later on Shavuot in 1760). Among his great teachings, the Baal Shem Tov said that “People should consider themselves, and the worms, and all creatures as friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given.”
This season, while we count the omer, we should re-educate ourselves about the hazards of mass production and consumption of meat and the many benefits of vegetarianism, as well as bring offerings to our inner temples. We can do this by practicing the powerful teachings and highest values of Judaism. A shift toward vegetarianism can be a major factor in the renewal of Judaism, as it would further demonstrate that Jewish values are not only relevant but essential to everyday personal life and global survival.
During the counting of the omer, between Passover and Shavuot, it is customary to read Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Parents), a section of the Talmud. In it, Rabbi Tarfon states that “It is not your obligation to complete the task [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free from engaging in it”. Another Talmudic sage, Ben Hay Hay, says in Pirkei Avot that “The reward is in proportion to the effort”. Therefore, it’s up to us to go beyond our good intentions and do the best we can. Shifting toward vegetarianism would be a great start! And as Hillel asks, “If not now, when?”